SEOUL, May 5 (Korea Bizwire) – It has been a short week, with Labor Day falling on May 1, Buddha’s Birthday on May 3, and Children’s Day on May 5.
But while most working adults and students enjoy time off with family or friends, thousands of South Korean young adults yet to find work are doubling down on their job seeking efforts amid the country’s deteriorating job market.
“I’m jealous when I see my friends posting travel plans for the long weekend on SNS,” said 26-year-old Lee Seo-hyun, a job applicant from Seoul who chose to spend her time off at a public library. “I’d feel bad for my family if I just hung out. So I’m out here to study.”
The desperation to land a stable job has become a reality for many young Koreans. In March, South Korea’s youth unemployment rate (from ages 15 to 29) stood at 11.3 percent, according to Statistics Korea.
The actual rate is even worse, estimated at a staggering 24 percent, taking into account part-timers, individuals who have “given up” their job search altogether, and those trying to improve their resume by obtaining different certificates or licenses. Prospective test takers for government exams are also excluded from the official statistics.
Most jobseekers turn to libraries, private academies, or cafés, which have become a popular destination for those looking for a more casual studying environment, to escape the holiday vibe.
“I don’t like the feeling of being trapped, which is why I study at a café,” said Suh Ho-jun, 24, an aspiring public servant studying in Seoul. “I have little time left until the exam in June, so I won’t be going home to Daegu for the long weekend.”
Suh is one of hundreds of thousands of jobseekers competing for government employment. This year, 228,368 applicants flocked to the Grade 9 (lowest clerical level) public servant exam for 4,910 openings, setting a new record.
Government jobs have grown exceedingly sought after amid South Korea’s prolonged economic downturn. Although they’re not as lucrative as positions offered by major conglomerates like Samsung, government jobs almost always guarantee employment until retirement (at 60), in addition to other benefits such as a retirement pension and family allowances.
A study conducted last year by Statistics Korea revealed that 39.9 percent of prospective job applicants were in fact preparing for government examinations, an increase of 4.4 percent from 2015. A more recent report by the National Youth Policy Institute said that 50.2 percent of job applicants are studying, or have studied in the past, for a government exam.
Given the intimidating number of test takers competing for the few available jobs, and the fact that the government typically only hires once a year, it is common for applicants to study for the exams for months, if not years.
The desperation of Korean youth was once again brought to light in April, when a 25-year-old applicant hung himself at a highway rest stop near Cheongju, on his way back home with his mother. The victim had been studying for a police exam since 2014.
Depression from the stress of searching for a job is common among youth. Job search portal Job Korea, in a survey announced in March, said 71.1 percent of job seekers are distraught with the pressure of finding work. An earlier study had revealed that 94.5 percent of job seekers experienced depression while they were searching for a job.
“It scares me to think that I’ll fail the test again,” said Park Su-jin, 26, who’s on her second attempt at the teacher certification exam. Park decided to skip a family reunion for the long weekend. “I know I have to try harder because I didn’t do as well as I thought last year.”
Shin, a 25-year-old who refused to share her full name, also failed to pass the police exam in March, but will be trying again next year. Like Park, Shin is not returning to her family in Seongnam for the holiday.
“The guilt lingers if I take time off studying just because everyone else does,” she said.
By Joseph Shin (firstname.lastname@example.org)